In addition to the decline and extinction of the world's species, the decline and eventual loss of species interactions is one of the major consequences of the biodiversity crisis. On the Pacific coast of North America, diminished runs of salmon (Oncorhynchus spp.) drive numerous marine-terrestrial interactions, many of which have been intensively studied, but marine-terrestrial interactions driven by other species remain relatively unknown. Bears (Ursus spp.) are major vectors of salmon into terrestrial ecosystems, but their participation in other cross-ecosystem interactions is similarly poorly described. Pacific herring (Clupea pallasii), a migratory forage fish in coastal marine ecosystems of the North Pacific Ocean and the dominant forage fish in British Columbia (BC), spawn in nearshore subtidal and intertidal zones. Spawn resources (eggs, milt, and spawning adults) at these events are available to coastal predators and scavengers, including terrestrial species. In this study, we investigated the interaction between American black bears (Ursus americanus) and Pacific herring at spawn events in Quatsino Sound, BC, Canada.
Using remote cameras to monitor bear activity (1,467 camera days, 29 sites, years 2010-2012) in supratidal and intertidal zones and a machine learning approach, we determined that the quantity of Pacific herring eggs in supratidal and intertidal zones was a leading predictor of black bear activity, with bears positively responding to increasing herring egg masses. Other important predictors included day of the year and Talitrid amphipod (Traskorchestia spp.) mass. A complementary analysis of black bear scats indicated that Pacific herring egg mass was the highest ranked predictor of egg consumption by bears. Pacific herring eggs constituted a substantial yet variable component of the early springtime diet of black bears in Quatsino Sound (frequency of occurrence 0-34%; estimated dietary content 0-63%). Other major dietary items included graminoids (grasses and sedges), Phaeophyta (brown algae), Zosteraceae (seagrasses), and Talitrid amphipods.
This research represents the first scientific evidence of a cross-ecosystem interaction between Pacific herring and American black bears. Our findings also expand knowledge of the ecological roles of both species. Combined, evidence of anthropogenic constraints on both black bears and Pacific herring suggests that bear-herring interactions were potentially stronger and more widespread in the past.